Are iPhones Actually Listening in on Our Most Private Conversations?

Iphone Privacy Credit: Nikolay Tarashchenko / Unsplash
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After having a private conversation within earshot of your smartphone, even if you weren’t actively using your device, you might begin seeing extremely specific ads based on whatever that in-person conversation was about. So is your smartphone actively listening in on your private conversations to target ads? Sometimes, it certainly feels like it.

The internet is littered with anecdotes former users who have had that happen. Just recently, The Sun reporter Miranda Knox carried out an experiment to see if her phone was listening — and found some pretty convincing results. Last year, Vice’s Sam Nichols did basically the same thing and quickly spotted targeted ads popping up overnight.

It certainly seems like our beloved smartphones are spying on our conversations, but are they? While there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence suggesting that they are, there’s little hard proof beyond that.

To be clear, the question isn’t whether or not a smartphone is listening to you. In fact, your iPhone and Android device is always actively listening for a “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google” trigger. But in many cases, users start seeing ads based on conversations without those triggers involved.

Apple has a solid privacy policy and specifically markets its smartphones as private devices. It’s a very different story for Android, which is generally less secure and private than iOS. So what exactly is going on? Simply put, we don’t know yet. But we’ll explore a couple of options specifically on the iPhone.

Is Apple Listening?

Technically, any audio data that your iPhone picks up is anonymized using differential privacy before it’s sent to Apple’s servers. Even if your iPhone is listening, the conversations it overhears shouldn’t be used for targeted advertisements.

While Apple’s own privacy policies do state that some data may be shared with “partners,” it seems fairly unlikely that Apple is passing off consumer data to Facebook or Google for targeted advertising. Apple’s business model is different. It doesn’t make money from selling data to advertisers or placing ads.

All in all, that makes the idea that Siri is spying on your conversations and sending that data to Facebook fairly unlikely.

What About Facebook and Instagram?

On the other hand, maybe it’s your apps that are listening to you. Cybersecurity researchers have found that Facebook, Instagram and other popular apps do listen in using audio triggers. The problem is that no one knows what these triggers are or how many there could be (but there could be thousands.)

More than that, Apple’s own developer guides indicate that apps open in the background could be able to record audio. Third-party apps do need explicit permission to use your iPhone’s microphone. But, if you’re like most of us, you probably absentmindedly grant most of your apps microphone access.

Companies like Facebook vehemently deny eavesdropping on user conversations. But for many users, suspiciously targeted ads are evidence enough that they’re lying about that.

Bottom Line

Smartphone eavesdropping leaves out something incredibly important about those aforementioned companies and apps— namely, that they already know a lot about you.

Which brings us to another option: the possibility that data firms and advertisers know you so well that they can predict your interests before you do. It may only seem like they listen in on your conversations because the targeted ads are so scarily specific and accurate. Whether or not that’s creepier than your smartphone actively spying on you is up for debate.

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